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Q&A with poet Rose McLarney, Visiting Writers Series guest March 2

By Ken Keuffel

BOONE, N.C.—On March 2, poet Rose McLarney will kick off the spring portion of the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series at Appalachian State University.

View larger imagePoet Rose McLarney will appear March 2 in the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series at Appalachian State University. Photo by Nicole McConville

McLarney is one of the leading lights on today’s poetry scene. An assistant professor of creative writing at Auburn University, she has published two collections of poems from which she will read at Appalachian: “Its Day Being Gone” (Penguin Books, 2014), which won the National Poetry Series; and “The Always Broken Plates of Mountains” (Four Way Books, 2012). The reading will take place at 7:30 p.m. March 2 in Room 201B (Table Rock Room) of the Plemmons Student Union on the university campus. From 3:30 to 4:45 p.m., on the same day and in the same location, she will offer a craft talk titled “Two by Two: Freshness, Influence, and Some Good Poems on the Same Subject.”

All series events are free and open to the public. Book sales and signing will follow each event.

McLarney has secured several fellowships, including one at the McDowell Colony and another at Warren Wilson College, where she completed that school’s MFA program for writers. Last year, she served as the Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place. She also won the 2016 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Achievement in Appalachian Writing. The Chaffin – awarded annually by the Department of English at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky – “recognizes outstanding Appalachian writers in all genres.”

In 2012, McLarney received the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ biennial George Garrett New Writing Award for Poetry. She is the co-editor in chief and poetry editor of The Southern Humanities Review.

During a recent interview, she talked about everything from her background to the critical reception of her work. Excerpts are as follows:

Ken Keuffel (KK): Welcome to the series, Rose. Imagine that readers of this preview are completely unfamiliar with your poetry. What can you say that might enhance their appreciation of it?

Rose McLarney (RM): I am interested in preserving clarity while also playing music with words. I want to indulge in detail and practice economy too.

While I compose each poem, I give it its own certain argument to make and hold that in mind. But my aim is for a poem not to be presumptuous or pedantic about its knowledge, or to prosily make itself plain, explaining intrigue away.

I don’t mean for my poems to be authoritative, but to invite the reader into the honest uncertainty of inquiry. And allowing for uncertainty doesn’t mean I don’t work my hardest as a writer, pressing on every aspect of a poem to test for faults before I print or read it for you.

I don’t talk so abstractly in person. Come to the reading and ask me a question.

KK: You grew up in rural western North Carolina, in the heart of Appalachia. How does your poetry reflect that experience?

RM: The simple answer is that Appalachia gave me my first subject matter, which was the distinctive landscape and culture of a geographically isolated area. Thinking more broadly, as writer who no longer lives in the region and wants to write about more than personal experience, I think that formative setting influenced my aesthetic. Worn mountains and rural people’s way of not saying too much, or what is meant outright, provide training in subtlety.

Growing up among fields and forests and old houses and barns that don’t seem to belong entirely to modern times gave me the notion that things last – which doesn’t turn out to be all that true, but made me think I ought to try to craft poems that would endure. And the beauty of the place sets a high standard and pushes me to do my best as a poet – as someone who presumes that something I create could contribute further to the world.

KK: Other writers appearing this spring in the series have ties to Appalachia. Critics suggest that you are all busting stereotypes about Appalachia, that you are reinventing the literary lens through which we glimpse that region. Assuming you agree, could you elaborate?

RM: I won’t claim reinvention, but I will say I try to avoid clichés. I don’t want to tell only the grim stories of rocky terrain and rough living or exclusively the sentimental ones about simpler times.

Setting out to avoid extremes – in writing about anywhere, in doing just about anything – might feel like it’s going to be some sort of dull compromise. But the in-between can be the tensest position because you can teeter either way, and it’s certainly the point from which you get the truest perspective.

It is also important to me not to limit myself to writing exclusively, unquestionably Appalachian material. If my material is too immediately recognizable, there’s a fair chance it’s a cliché. And, in this time in our country when I am terribly troubled by the treatment of people with whom I do not share much background in the ways it is reductively defined – nationality, sexuality, race, etc., I have to empathize with and at least try to advocate for others in writing. Such writing may not be particularly Appalachian, and it certainly has to allow for other worldviews to enter the scene. That said, my fears about our nation make me feel the need to stay in the South, to keep living and teaching literature’s diverse voices here, all the more.

KK: Some of your material seems to be that of an environment-friendly poet. What can poetry tell us about the environment that science cannot?

RM: I’m drawn less to what poetry tells us than what it lets us wonder. Science can be about identifying and naming and explaining. Poetry can be about what we don’t know and may enjoy all the more because it is beyond us. Consider all the unanswered questions that comprise what most everyone agrees is a masterful poem, Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

He does not offer up any name or taxonomic order in reply. But successful poems – which are meticulously crafted – nevertheless closely observe the world around us and encourage the reader’s attention too.

KK: Your series craft talk is titled “Two by Two: Freshness, Influence, and Some Good Poems on the Same Subject.” What do you mean by “Two by Two”?

RM: During the talk, I will discuss sets of two poems on the same subject. Considering poems that are on the same subject but interpret it differently and are stylistically distinctive helps a poet remember that her writing can be worthwhile, and not necessarily redundant, even if she is returning to topics others before her have addressed. Also, drawing connections between poems is a way of acknowledging how poets are informed and inspired by one another’s work. And, to stretch a bit farther, I like to practice saying, we don’t have to have new things, we can keep coming back to the beauty of what we’ve already been given, whether in reference to poems, or larger concerns like the resources of the earth that ought to be conserved.

So, as the gimmick for this talk, I have chosen a small selection of animal poems. Compiling pairs of poems about the same type of animal, each by a different writer who takes his or her own innovative approaches to the material, is building a kind of ark. The phrase “Two by Two” refers, of course, to the number of animals necessary for a species to survive, but I also like its implications that we all proceed in tandem with others – or in poets’ cases, in the company of influences and fellow writers.

KK: Let’s talk about your two published collections of poetry. I read this description of “Its Day Being Gone”: “Rose McLarney has won acclaim for image-rich poems that explore her native southern Appalachia and those who love and live and lose on it. Her second collection broadens these investigations in poems that examine the shape-shifting quality of memory, as seen in folktales that have traveled across oceans and through centuries, and in how we form recollections of our own lives.” What is meant by “shape-shifting quality of memory”?

RM: Neither eyewitness accounts nor memories are firm forms of information. Shape-shifting creatures in folklore transform themselves to elude others or accomplish what they wish. Likewise, we form and reform our stories, embellishing and excising to suit different occasions, or to comfort ourselves, even when we’re not aware of what we’re doing. A number of my poems tell and then re-tell similar stories from different points of view or periods of time, resulting in different tones and takeaways.

I was just looking at an exhibit of art by Stuart Davis, who repainted his own paintings. He would come back to an image after years, paint it again, and the result would be unrecognizable to someone else, even at the level of color schemes. His project was intentional, but I think our brains are always working like this in some ways and, concerns with truthfulness aside, I admire how creative the mind almost can’t help being. This subjectivity relates to what I was initially talking about with pairings of poems – two writers looking at the same species and perceiving in it poems that are utterly unalike.

KK: In a review of your collection “The Always Broken Plates of Mountains,” The Los Angeles Review noted that your “eye and ear are dead-on.” What makes a good “ear” in poetry?

RM: I am a very practical person when going about everyday tasks. But, when I am writing poetry, I am after much more than straightforward statements. I listen to each word to see if its sound is a pleasure beyond the meaning it conveys (which may not be pleasant), and to each line to see if it suggests to the reader the speed at which she ought to proceed, where she ought to pause, and so forth.

Even though I don’t write in strict meter, this timing is a kind of music. Also, I love effects such as alliteration or slight internal rhyme that help words lead into each other and the reader’s mind follow in a way that transcends totally rational explanation.

A good ear for a poet must be one that can recognize when a musical phrase – which is a magical note that resounds with more than the literal definition the writer could give to the words – comes to mind. It probably belongs to someone who lets their drafts pursue such a phrase even if it isn’t sensible, because it is sensory.

Seamus Heaney, the late Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, writes about drafting a poem and discovering the particular “phrase or cadence which haunts the ear and eager parts of the mind.” Once it is found, or finds the writer, this force “is the tuning fork to which the whole music of the poem is orchestrated.” I suppose a good ear is one that is allowed to be haunted by that tuning fork and checks all that is written against it.

KK: A review of “Always Broken Plates” appeared in the fall-winter edition of last year’s Appalachian Journal, which is published at Appalachian State University. This refers to you as “as an Appalachian Robert Frost.” How do you feel about that?

RM: The reviewer said my poetry is like Frost’s in that it “courts misreading.” The poems seem simple because of their brevity or imagery, but surprise by not offering the familiar comforting messages people may come to them expecting. Some readers might say my poems are like Frost’s because they happen to mention apples and barns and physical work – at least my earlier poems did. My hope is that the poems I am writing now are like Frost’s, though my talents are no match for his, in that they are largely devoted to ideas and observations outside the self.

I am increasingly trying to avoid writing poems that include any element of a peepshow into my personal life, which is ultimately not all that interesting. That tactic is a too-easy way of attracting initial, likely superficial, attention. Maybe, these poems will be considered less accessible. Female poets, in particular, are often criticized for being too bodily and then, when they write in another way, for being too heady. But Frost sure could pull philosophical arguments off in poems everybody loved. Frost could write a poem about a single spider that would implicitly address all of creation. And never mention his own personal story. I admire how much of the space on his pages he gave over entirely to trees and plants, carefully developed human characters other than himself and sweeping considerations of humanity at large.

Upcoming series guests

Others appearing in Appalachian’s Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series this spring are poet Bianca Spriggs March 30, poet Al Young April 6 and novelist Robert Gipe April 20. For more information, visit http://www.news.appstate.edu/2017/02/15/visiting-writers-series-8

About the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series

The Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series, named in honor of alumna Hughlene Bostian Frank ’68, brings distinguished and up-and-coming creative writers to the Appalachian State University campus throughout the year to present lectures and discuss their works. Frank is a 2013 Appalachian Alumni Association Outstanding Service award recipient, past member of Appalachian’s Board of Trustees, current board member of the Appalachian State University Foundation Inc., and generous supporter of Appalachian. Learn more at http://visitingwriters.appstate.edu.

The Spring 2017 Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series is supported by the Appalachian State University Foundation Inc., Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English, Office of Multicultural Student Development, University Bookstore, Belk Library and Information Commons, and the Appalachian Journal. Business sponsors are The Gideon Ridge Inn, The Red Onion Restaurant and The New Public House & Hotel. Community sponsors include John and the late Margie Idol, Paul and Judy Tobin, Alice Naylor and Thomas McLaughlin.

About Appalachian State University

Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.

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